Tools, Not Majors

I have a friend who trains reining horses and, if you ask, he will proudly tell you that he owns upwards of 300 different bits. My mentor and longtime dressage instructor travels by car to most of the places where she teaches and never leaves home without her famous “Bag O’ Bits,” a canvas tote containing somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 different versions of snaffles. And in the short time I’ve been riding some project horses and re-schooling them into dressage careers, I’ve changed the bit on one mare twice, the other mare three times, and the gelding once.

Undoubtedly my friends and the number of bits they possess are some extreme examples of bit ownership (I affectionately refer to them as “bit hoarders”) and the rapid-fire number of bit changes I’ve done on my re-school projects is perhaps extreme as well. But the bit is an important tool when it comes to riding and training horses. It isn’t the only tool, but working in concert with everything else, it plays a significant role in communicating with the horse.

I’d love for college students and high school students looking at colleges to look at majors and classes in the same way.

Too often, when I talk with students and their parents about their expectations for the college experience and the conversation steers to the topic of potential majors, families seem to equate the idea of a college major as a magic bullet that will automatically impart all of the information and skills students need for a particular career in four years. One shot, one price, four years and done. Boom.

A double major? Twice the magic for the same price.

A major and a minor? The key to open a door to a broad industry but with a unique specialization to aid in job placement!

If only it were that simple, readers.

More and more frequently, those in hiring positions have begun to lament a notable “skills gap” between what students learn in college and the tasks they’re required to perform once they’re actually hired into the workforce. (A recent article from Mark Putnam in The Des Moines Register cautions, “…the best advice I can give students is: ‘Avoid the risk of majoring in a job title.'”)

In my conversations with students and parents, then, I try to talk about majors and courses the same way I talk with my trainer friends about bits: as tools that can be used to achieve certain results or new and different types of understanding and competency.

For a student who wants to work in the horse industry, that can mean taking business coursework so that he or she can understand the basic structure of how a true for-profit business works, psychology classes to learn how other people learn and how children develop, and perhaps even foreign language classes to increase his or her ability to converse with our increasingly international population of horse industry professionals, from grooms through horse dealers both here and abroad.

For a future doctor, it’s no longer a matter of just taking courses in biology and chemistry and physics; medical schools today want students who work well in team settings and bring unique perspectives and experiences with them that may (on the surface, at least) not seem to be directly related to medical care. Students who major in piano or at least take lessons during their undergraduate years will have increased manual dexterity for surgical procedures, for example, while a student who studies art or art history will develop an eye for subtle shifts in color or finer details that can lead to more accurate diagnoses in general practice.

I could list examples all day, but the point here is that students who lock themselves into the mindset that one specific major or path is all they need to be successful after college are doing themselves a tremendous disservice – and potentially sabotaging themselves before they even begin to work toward their degree. Excuses, such as “But I’m really only interested in this specific subject” or “I hate taking Spanish/French/German in high school, why would I keep taking it in college?” are narrow-minded and set the tone for a college experience that may fall short of a student’s own lofty expectations for his or her future career possibilities.

A horse with the wrong bit (or even with the right bit used incorrectly) can never fully live up to our expectations as riders and the same can be said for a student who gets into a great college but doesn’t seize the opportunity to acquire every educational tool and skill available to them during the experience.

(Need help identifying the college that can give you all of the tools you need for your future? Contact me or pick up a copy of my book to help guide your search.)

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